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Lawmakers tee up proposals to improve military child care facilities, address barriers to care

Three boys in the Strong Beginnings program at Fort Carson's Ivy Child Development Center play in the block area March 13, 2020.

AMBER MARTIN/U.S. ARMY

By SARAH CAMMARATA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 3, 2021

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are teeing up legislative proposals that would tackle child care problems in the military, as thousands of children remain on monthslong waitlists and the Defense Department’s backlog to repair existing facilities swells.

The Defense Department, along with experts and military advocacy groups, have recognized high-quality child care as a retention and readiness issue for service members. The coronavirus pandemic also has exacerbated the problem, as some child care centers and schools remain shuttered, blocking access to after-school care too.

The inability to access affordable and quality child care can impact a service member's ability to report for duty and his or her decision to stay in the military, and it also can be a barrier to spouse unemployment and hurts the overall well-being of military families, experts said.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said she will introduce a proposal in mid-May with Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., that requires the Defense Department to conduct a review on its child care centers, including examining their conditions, establishing a plan to modernize them and finding ways to expand capacity.

“There has been a lack of recognition that when a service member serves, so does his or her family. … We’re elevating this issue, and we’re going to get everyone’s attention and we’re going to get them to respond,” said Speier, chairwoman of the military personnel subpanel of the House Armed Services Committee.

A Defense Department report in June 2020 on its child development programs found out of 761 child development centers, 378 are in “good” condition, while 135 are in “poor” or “failing” condition due to the high cost of repairs and deferred maintenance.

“Failing to me suggests that there might even be environmental conditions that are poor, much like the housing at many of our facilities is very poor. I worry about lead and asbestos and mold,” Speier said.

The congresswoman said the department has repaired just eight facilities in the last decade. Speier also said this suggests the issue has not been prioritized, despite the number of inadequate facilities.

While millions of dollars are funneled into weapons programs, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or a littoral combat ship, “somehow the kids don’t count. Well, they count to me and I think they count to the families, so I’m being very aggressive about this. We need to fix it,” she said.

Child care is also a focus for Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., who is working with Speier and other lawmakers on child care amendments in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, which sets funding levels for the Pentagon.

Jacobs represents San Diego, a region with the DOD’s largest concentrations of child care needs, according to the department.

Of the nearly 9,000 children of service members worldwide who are stuck on a waitlist despite immediate need for child care, 1,888 of those children are in San Diego, making up the largest segment on the waitlist. Norfolk, Va., and the National Capital region are close behind at 1,761 and 1,491 respectively, according to the department.

The freshman congresswoman said she aims to fix the existing facilities, while also ensuring there are enough facilities.

“You also need the funding for child care to make sure that those care jobs are good paying jobs, but also that … they have enough slots that they can go and send their kids to. And so, I’m working on both of those sides of the ledger,” said Jacobs, also a member of the personnel subcommittee.

Access to child care is a “readiness concern, because we are having service members who can’t deploy because they don’t have folks to watch their kids,” she said.

Speier said she wants to evaluate all child care centers for lead, asbestos and mold, identify “child care deserts” -- places where there is no care available -- and assess the cost effectiveness of creating more child development centers or accessing services outside the base.

The proposal that is set to be released May 11 would also bring back a provision included in the fiscal year 2006 NDAA that develops a permanent funding stream for child care center construction. The provision, which has since expired, allowed for using operations and maintenance funding for military child development center projects.

Speier said she is also pushing for public-private partnerships that would make outside service providers supply slots each year for service members in an effort to expand accessibility.

Military advocacy groups, including Blue Star Families in their 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey Comprehensive Report, have recommended purchasing child care slots at local civilian providers.

Jennifer Davis, government relations deputy director for the National Military Family Association, said a lack of access to child care was one of the biggest reasons that she left the Air Force.

She and her husband received orders to move from Nebraska to Hawaii, and the waitlist at the time to get into a child development center on the installation there was six months.

“So, we would be getting to Hawaii, not knowing anybody, not having any family there, and not having any child care in place. And, I just couldn't do that,” said Davis, who had a newborn baby to care for then.

The coronavirus pandemic has put a further strain on military families, Davis said, as many military spouses have lost their jobs. The unemployment rate for military spouses was 22 percent in 2019, the last year that the Defense Department surveyed spouses.

Twenty-nine percent of active-duty spouse respondents surveyed in the 2020 Blue Star Families report who had stopped working since the pandemic began in early 2020 said one of the reasons was they did not have child care.

While some NDAA measures in past years have sought to address child care-related accessibility and affordability problems, “the pandemic in general has shown how important child care and care work is,” Jacobs said.

“Now that there are more women in Congress and on the committee, there is a much bigger push to make sure that something gets done on this issue,” she said.

Cammarata.Sarah@Stripes.com
Twitter: @sarahjcamm